Harvard Hillel and Chabad set up more than 200 wooden chairs and place settings around an extra-long Shabbat table on Harvard Yard last Friday morning, each representing a hostage held by Hamas in Gaza since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel.
A “kidnapped” poster, with each person’s name, face, and short bio, was placed on the back of each chair – with high chairs and sippy cups set up to represent the infant and toddler hostages. Some curious students and passersby studied the flyers closely, walking the entire length of the table to get a better look.
“We arranged a Shabbat dinner table for each and every one of their names so that folks walking through the square or the yard and on their way to class could have an opportunity to realize [the hostages] are not just another,” Rabbi Getzel Davis, Harvard’s campus rabbi, said in an interview at the college.
Over the past month, local Jewish college students have navigated the trials that have come with the increasing amount of anti-Israel, sometimes dipping into antisemitic, rhetoric on campuses.
“There’s definitely an air of fear, just everywhere,” Northeastern University sophomore Naomi Anbar said. “Even the little incidents are enough to make people scared to put their last name in their Instagram profile right now if it sounds very Jewish … I wear my Magen David necklace, and I do that because I think it’s important to do so especially right now, but there is a level of fear. You know, if someone sees that and wants to take action, something could happen.”
Anbar believes Northeastern’s president and administration have made a considerable effort to support Jewish students during this tumultuous time, by making statements and speaking out, but that the anti-Israel protests and rallies on campus still are enough to cause Jewish students to feel shaken up.
“We hear about them and we hear what’s said at them,” Anbar said.
Harvard University Jewish organizations have been working for weeks to fend off antisemitism and raise awareness of those killed, injured, and kidnapped by Hamas on Oct. 7.
“There are students who are scared, there are students who are angry, there are students who are isolating, there are students who are just trying to go about their lives,” Havard’s Rabbi Davis said. “There have been a lot of terrible things that have happened on campus and online that students are subjected to.”
On Oct. 18, when pro-Palestinian Harvard students and community members staged a “die-in” on the Harvard Business School campus, a man – who various news outlets and social media accounts reported to be Jewish – was surrounded, blocked, and shooed away by participants of the “die in” when he tried to film the protest, according to NECN aerial video.
Upon receiving a request for comment on this, Harvard spokesperson Jason Newton referred the Jewish Journal to NECN’s report and The Harvard Crimson’s story from that day, confirming the interaction did happen. Newton declined to comment on the situation any further or confirm the man was Jewish.
The Harvard College Jewish Alumni Association recently penned an open letter to Harvard President Claudine Gay and Dean Rakesh Khurana to ensure the protection of Jewish students on campus.
The group launched a “one dollar pledge,” asking fellow alumni to donate no more than one dollar to the university for the foreseeable future, due to the university’s alleged delayed reaction to the devastating Hamas attacks, according to Rebecca Brooks, a 2017 graduate and Harvard College Jewish Alumni Association organizer.
The group cites “Harvard’s initial silence and its ongoing failure to condemn” a letter that claimed Israel to be responsible for Hamas’ attacks, which was signed by more than 30 campus organizations.
The Jewish Alumni Association said that it is one thing to stand up for the rights of Palestinians and express concern for the safety of civilians in Gaza, but it is another to “trade in the crude language of ‘resistance’ to justify the grotesque bullying and intimidation of Jewish students on campus and to exalt ideologies of violence and brutality that run counter to the idea of democracy itself.
“During that time, the university did not swiftly and unequivocally condemn those terrorist attacks. And for that period, that crucial period, those [letters blaming Israel] were the only pronouncements coming out of the university,” Brooks said.
Since Harvard considers itself a moral leader in the world, Brooks said, Jewish alumni were outraged, saying that the university should have spoken out swiftly against terrorism.
“When Ukraine was invaded, Harvard swiftly condemned the invasion of Ukraine and flew the Ukrainian flag about the campus. When George Floyd was savagely murdered, Harvard quickly condemned his murder and condemned police brutality,” Brooks said. “And now we have this horrific massacre in Israel. And the only statement coming out of Harvard was a statement by student groups saying that those terrorist attacks were justified.”
Two days later, on Oct. 9, Harvard leadership published a statement emphasizing its commitment to “deepen our knowledge of the unfolding events and their broader implications for the region and the world,” expressing heartbreak for Harvard community members affected.
On Oct. 10, Gay published a statement condemning “the terrorist atrocities perpetuated by Hamas,” and that no student group speaks for the university or its leadership. On Oct. 12, Gay released a video statement saying the university rejects terrorism, hate, and harassment or intimidation of individuals based on their beliefs.
Just over two weeks later, on Oct. 27, Gay joined over 250 Jewish community members at a Shabbat dinner hosted by Harvard Hillel, where she gave a speech announcing an advisory group to combat antisemitism on campus.
“We’re hopeful that something comes of it,” Davis said Friday. “I’m grateful to her for doing that.”
The committee includes faculty, staff, alumni, and religious leaders from the Jewish community, and will work with Gay, Provost Alan Garber, and individual school deans to identify the places where the administration can intervene to disrupt antisemitism and educate the community, Gay said in her Shabbat speech.
“Harvard’s mission, and legacy, is the pursuit and dissemination of truth. And the core of antisemitism is a lie – specifically, the denial of Jewish identity and experience,” Gay said in the speech, according to a copy of the remarks Harvard posted online. “This lie has taken many forms, from Holocaust denial to the blood libel to conspiracy theories to the denial of the Jewish peoples’ historical ties to the land of Israel.”
In the Jewish Alumni Association’s open letter, the group said that Gay’s meeting with Hillel and Chabad “meant a great deal,” and called upon the university to protect all students, not just those who “shout the loudest or blare the most polarizing rhetoric.”